Yoga & Autism: A Winning Combination

The brain of a child on the spectrum can be a noisy place; peace is a calm we hope for them to develop in their heart.

Yoga & Autism: A Winning Combination

We know that anxiety is common among children, and particularly common among children on the Autism Spectrum, which reflects an internal tension that may manifest in a variety of behaviors.

Research has yet to uncover the rate that children on the spectrum suffer anxiety; though anecdotally we know it anxiety appears to be elevated for many on the spectrum.

Unfortunately, there are no medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressly for the treatment of anxiety in children or adolescents (Autism Speaks, 2018).

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has shown good success for anxiety treatment, though it can be expensive and hard to access.  Another option to help children and adolescents on the spectrum mange anxiety is yoga.

Yoga is generally an under-researched intervention that may prove helpful in that it provides elements that decrease anxiety including physical postures and exercises, breath regulation, deep relaxation techniques and meditation/mindfulness (Hofmann, et al., 2015).

There is also preliminary evidence yoga can offer support children with emotional and self-regulation, behavior, cognitive function and their motor abilities (Campbell & Martin, 2017).


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Children can be enticed to join yoga when it is presented as a fun activity; yoga naturally appeals to this in that asanas can be stretched into fun activities by capitalizing on the name and engaging children in the poses in a playful manner.

Boundaries are clear when a child has their own mat; additionally, knowing interaction with other children is optional can be helpful.   There is ritual in yoga that can be attractive to children on the spectrum; yoga follows a fairly set pattern that in and of itself, can be calming.

A good children’s yoga teacher will also make class fun and inviting.  Imagine how children might respond to being invited into a “downward dog,” a very playful combination of a cat and a cow teasing each other, or being a butterfly with their knees flittering apart in butterfly pose.

Finding a qualified children’s yoga teacher can be a challenge; the National Yoga Alliance does set standards for children’s yoga, and The national Yoga Alliance does set standards for children’s yoga, and instructors can become a “Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher” (RCYT) with an additional 95 hour children’s yoga training on top of a minimal completion of standard 200 hour yoga teacher training.

You may be able to find an autism-focused yogi in your area, but if not, you can see take the following steps to find a yogi who will work with your child:

  • Search out yoga teachers specifically trained to work with children such as those with the RCYT designation, and speak with them about coming in just so your child can meet them and become acquainted with the yoga studio.
  • Schedule this time when there are not classes or multiple students so there are less distractions.
  • Discuss with the yoga instructor any particular sensitivities your child may have so they know how to best make them feel comfortable and stay away from triggering events.
  • If your child is hesitant to try yoga, use reinforcers to get them to try it (favorite book, video game, food, etc.) that they can earn as a result of giving the yoga class a try.
  • Another possibility may be to pay for one private yoga class with the teacher so your child becomes familiar with the teacher, the studio, and the class structure and asanas (yoga poses).
  • Review the steps of the yoga class with your child after you learn them (e.g. go to studio with your mat, put the mat down on the floor, get on the mat, do what the instructor is doing and follow directions, and with lying down and relaxing, and picking up the mat and leaving the studio). These steps can be made visual for the child.
  • Practice the steps of the yoga class with your child at home prior to taking them to the yoga studio (this will typically include quiet time in a sitting position, getting up into yoga poses, and quiet time at the end of class).

Given our current health climate, parents may also need to look online for resources to use at home.  While there are limited yoga resources online for children on the spectrum, there are several YouTube channels for online kids yoga that parents may be able to utilize with their children.

  • Cosmic Kids Yoga (they even have one featuring Minecraft…)
  • Bari Koral
  • Karma Kids
  • Kidding Around Yoga
  • Stacey Nelson Yoga (also focuses on teens)
  • Go Go Yoga for Kids

Parents may find these playful alternatives useful as they emphasize breath, meditation, and calmness in a playful, engaging manner.

References

Autism Speaks (2018, Sept. 6).  How common are anxiety disorders in people with autism? Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/how-common-are-anxiety-disorders-people-autism

Campbell M, Martin S. (2017)/ Exploring yoga as a sensory based intervention for children with sensory processing difficulties: a systematic literature review. MOJ Yoga Physical Therapy, 2(4):101-108. DOI: 10.15406/mojypt.2017.02.00028

Hofmann, S. G., Curtiss, J., Khalsa, S., Hoge, E., Rosenfield, D., Bui, E., Keshaviah, A., & Simon, N. (2015). Yoga for generalized anxiety disorder: design of a randomized controlled clinical trial. Contemporary clinical trials, 44, 70–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cct.2015.08.003

This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD

Lorna Hecker

Lorna Hecker

Lorna Hecker, PhD is a Professor Emerita of Purdue University Northwest where she taught family therapy. She is in private practice in Fort Collins, Colorado where she focuses on autism and anxiety.

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